The Ambiguous Legacy of ‘68
Forty years ago, what was revolutionized -- the world or capitalism?
By Slavoj Žižek
June 20, 2008
In 1968 Paris, one of the best-known graffiti messages on the city's walls was "Structures do not walk on the streets!" In other words, the massive student and workers demonstrations of '68 could not be explained in the terms of structuralism, as determined by the structural changes in society, as in Saussurean structuralism. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's response was that this, precisely, is what happened in '68: structures did descend onto the streets. The visible explosive events on the streets were, ultimately, the result of a structural imbalance.
There are good reasons for Lacan's skeptical view. As French scholars Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello noted in 1999's The New Spirit of Capitalism, from the '70s onward, a new form of capitalism emerged.
Capitalism abandoned the hierarchical Fordist structure of the production process -- which, named after auto maker Henry Ford, enforced a hierarchical and centralized chain of command -- and developed a network-based form of organization that accounted for employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace. As a result, we get networks with a multitude of participants, organizing work in teams or by projects, intent on customer satisfaction and public welfare, or worrying about ecology.
In this way, capitalism usurped the left's rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one. It was Socialism that was conservative, hierarchic and administrative.
The anti-capitalist protests of the '60s supplemented the traditional critique of socioeconomic exploitation with a new cultural critique: alienation of everyday life, commodification of consumption, inauthenticity of a mass society in which we "wear masks" and suffer sexual and other oppressions.
The new capitalism triumphantly appropriated this anti-hierarchical rhetoric of '68, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism and "really existing" socialism. This new libertarian spirit is epitomized by dressed-down "cool" capitalists such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and the founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
What survived of the sexual liberation of the '60s was the tolerant hedonism readily incorporated into our hegemonic ideology. Today, sexual enjoyment is not only permitted, it is ordained -- individuals feel guilty if they are not able to enjoy it. The drive to radical forms of enjoyment (through sexual experiments and drugs or other trance-inducing means) arose at a precise political moment: when "the spirit of '68" had exhausted its political potential.
At this critical point in the mid-'70s, we witnessed a direct, brutal push-toward-the-Real, which assumed three main forms: first, the search for extreme forms of sexual enjoyment; second, the turn toward the Real of an inner experience (Oriental mysticism); and, finally, the rise of leftist political terrorism (Red Army Faction in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, etc.).
Leftist political terror operated under the belief that, in an epoch in which the masses are totally immersed in capitalist ideological sleep, the standard critique of ideology is no longer operative. Only a resort to the raw Real of direct violence could awaken them.
What these three options share is the withdrawal from concrete socio-political engagement, and we feel the consequences of this withdrawal from engagement today.
Autumn 2005's suburb riots in France saw thousands of cars burning and a major outburst of public violence. But what struck the eye was the absence of any positive utopian vision among protesters. If May '68 was a revolt with a utopian vision, the 2005 revolt was an outburst with no pretense to vision.
Here's proof of the common aphorism that we live in a post-ideological era: The protesters in the Paris suburbs made no particular demands. There was only an insistence on recognition, based on a vague, non-articulated resentment.
The fact that there was no program in the burning of Paris suburbs tells us that we inhabit a universe in which, though it celebrates itself as a society of choice, the only option available to the enforced democratic consensus is the explosion of (self-)destructive violence.
Recall here Lacan's challenge to the protesting students in '68: "As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one."
And we did get one -- in the guise of the post-modern "permissive" master whose domination is all the stronger for being less visible.
While many undoubtedly positive changes accompanied this passage -- such as new freedoms and access to positions of power for women -- one should nonetheless raise hard questions: Was this passage from one "spirit of capitalism" to another really all that happened in '68? Was all the drunken enthusiasm of freedom just a means to replacing one form of domination with another?
Things are not so simple. While '68 was gloriously appropriated by the dominant culture as an explosion of sexual freedom and anti-hierarchic creativity, France's Nicholas Sarkozy said in his 2007 presidential campaign that his great task is to make France finally get over '68.
So, what we have is "their" and "our" May '68. In today's ideological memory, "our" basic idea of the May demonstrations -- the link between students' protests and workers' strikes -- is forgotten.
If we look at our predicament with the eyes of '68, we should remember that, at its core, '68 was a rejection of the liberal-capitalist system, a "NO" to the totality of it.
It is easy to make fun of political economist Francis Fukuyama's notion of the "end of history," of his claim that, in liberal capitalism, we found the best possible social system. But today, the majority is Fukuyamaist. Liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally found formula for the best of all possible worlds, all that is left to do is render it more just, tolerant, etc.
When Marco Cicala, an Italian journalist, recently used the word "capitalism" in an article for the Italian daily La Repubblica, his editor asked him if the use of this term was necessary and could he not replace it with a synonym like "economy"?
What better proof of capitalism's triumph in the last three decades than the disappearance of the very term "capitalism"? So, again, the only true question today is: Do we endorse this naturalization of capitalism, or does today's global capitalism contain contradictions strong enough to prevent its indefinite reproduction?
There are (at least) four such antagonisms: the looming threat of ecological catastrophe; the inappropriateness of private property rights for so-called "intellectual property"; the socio-ethical implications of new techno-scientific developments (especially in biogenetics); and, last but not least, new forms of apartheid, in the form of new walls and slums.
The first three antagonisms concern the domains of what political theorists Michael Hardt and Toni Negri call "commons" -- the shared substance of our social being whose privatization is a violent act that should be resisted with violent means, if necessary (violence against private property, that is).
The commons of external nature are threatened by pollution and exploitation (from oil to forests and natural habitat itself); the commons of internal nature (the biogenetic inheritance of humanity) are threatened by technological interference; and the commons of culture -- the socialized forms of "cognitive" capital, primarily language, our means of communication and education, but also the shared infrastructure of public transport, electricity, post, etc. -- are privatized for profit. (If Bill Gates were to be allowed a monopoly, we would have reached the absurd situation in which a private individual would have owned the software texture of our basic network of communication.)
We are gradually becoming aware of the destructive potential, up to the self-annihilation of humanity itself, that could be unleashed if the capitalist logic of enclosing these commons is allowed a free run.
Economist Nicholas Stern rightly characterized the climate crisis as "the greatest market failure in human history."
There is an increasing awareness that we need global environmental citizenship, a political space to address climate change as a matter of common concern of all humanity.
One should give weight to the terms "global citizenship" and "common concern." Doesn't this desire to establish a global political organization and engagement that will neutralize and channel market forces mean that we are in need of a properly communist perspective? The need to protect the "commons" justifies the resuscitation of the notion of Communism: It enables us to see the ongoing "enclosure" of our commons as a process of proletarization of those who are thereby excluded from their own substance.
It is, however, only the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded that properly justifies the term Communism. In slums around the world, we are witnessing the fast growth of a population outside state control, living in conditions outside the law, in terrible need of minimal forms of self-organization. Although marginalized laborers, redundant civil servants and ex-peasants make up this population, they are not simply a redundant surplus: They are incorporated into the global economy, many working as informal wage workers or self-employed entrepreneurs, with no adequate health or social security coverage. (The main source of their rise is the inclusion of the Third World countries in the global economy, with cheap food imports from the First World countries ruining local agriculture.) These new slum dwellers are not an unfortunate accident, but a necessary product of the innermost logic of global capitalism.
Whoever lives in the favelas -- or shanty towns -- of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or in Shanghai, China, is not essentially different from someone who lives in the banlieues -- or outskirts -- of Paris or the ghettos of Chicago.
If the principal task of the 19th century's emancipatory politics was to break the monopoly of the bourgeois liberals by politicizing the working class, and if the task of the 20th century was to politically awaken the immense rural population of Asia and Africa, the principal task of the 21st century is to politicize -- organize and discipline -- the "destructured masses" of slum-dwellers.
If we ignore this problem of the Excluded, all other antagonisms lose their subversive edge.
Ecology turns into a problem of sustainable development. Intellectual property turns into a complex legal challenge. Biogenetics becomes an ethical issue. Corporations -- like Whole Foods and Starbucks -- enjoy favor among liberals even though they engage in anti-union activities; they just sell products with a progressive spin.
You buy coffee made with beans bought at above fair-market value.
You drive a hybrid vehicle.
You buy from companies that provide good benefits for their customers (according to corporation's standards).
In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian fighting poverty and diseases, and NewCorp's Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.
In contrast to the classic image of proletarians who have "nothing to lose but their chains," we are thus ALL in danger of losing ALL. The risk is that we will be reduced to abstract empty Cartesian subjects deprived of substantial content, dispossessed of symbolic substance, our genetic base manipulated, vegetating in an unlivable environment.
These triple threats to our being make all of us potential proletarians. And the only way to prevent actually becoming one is to act preventively.
The true legacy of '68 is best encapsulated in the formula Soyons realistes, demandons l'impossible! (Let's be realists, demand the impossible.)
Today's utopia is the belief that the existing global system can reproduce itself indefinitely. The only way to be realistic is to envision what, within the coordinates of this system, cannot but appear as impossible.
Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.